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The Future—and Past—of Privacy

gate in wall

gate in wall

Parts of history have been, and will always be, encrypted.

Irina Raicu

Last month, in a New York Times op-ed titled “The Future of Privacy,” novelist William Gibson wrestled with his mixed feelings about privacy. Reflecting on Apple’s decision to contest the FBI’s demand that the company bypass some of the security measures which kept law enforcement from accessing the materials on one of the phones used by the shooter in San Bernardino, Gibson wrote,

In the short term, the span of a lifetime, many of us would argue for privacy, and therefore against transparency. But history, the long term, is transparency; it is the absence of secrets. So we are quite merciless, as historians, when it comes to the secrets of the past, the secrets of the dead. We come to know them with an intimacy impossible in their day. …

And here, to complete my tangle of confusion, is encryption…. I assume (perhaps incorrectly) that the future is all too liable to have its way with today’s most sophisticated encryption technology. I imagine that the world’s best-kept secrets — those of both private citizens and state institutions — will one day sit in plain sight on whatever it is that our descendants display data on.

Privy to that information while looking back at us, our ancestors will know us differently than we currently know ourselves, just as we now know the Victorians quite differently from how they knew themselves. The past, our own past, … will not be the past from which we now see ourselves emerging, but a reinterpretation of it, based on subsequently available information, greater transparency and fewer secrets.

If our continually lengthening, ever more transparent history is the sum total of who we are as a species, then our species is the poorer for every secret faithfully kept. Any permanently unbreakable encryption seems counter to that.

But that is a big “if.” Is it accurate to claim that our history is “ever more transparent” and “the sum total of who we are as a species?” In this context, I found it ironic that Gibson invoked the Victorians and how we know them. I had just been reading “Possession,” a novel by A. S. Byatt (published in 1990), in which several modern-day scholars compete and collaborate in uncovering, collecting, documenting, and interpreting the letters and memoirs of two Victorian poets and their relatives. The villain in the story is himself a scholar, prepared to pay and do whatever it takes to amass every bit of information about one of the long-deceased poets (and then comment authoritatively on the poet’s life). He is terribly frustrated by the poet’s wife, who had left behind a memoir in which she explained why she had burned her husband’s letters, as he had asked. She wrote,

He said often to me, burn what is alive for us with the life of our memory, and let no one else make idle curios or lies out of it. I remember being much struck with Harriet Martineau, in her autobiography, saying that to print private letters was a form of treachery--as though one should tell the intimate talk of two friends with their feet on the fender, on winter nights.

But Byatt (the novelist who imagined both the Victorian characters and the modern scholars) points out that purposeful acts of privacy protection are not the only way in which history’s transparency is limited. Late in the novel, she describes a bit of life that had evaded all the record-keepers. She writes,

There are things that happen and leave no discernible trace, are not spoken or written of, though it would be very wrong to say that subsequent events go on indifferently, all the same, as though such things had never been. Two people met, on a hot May day, and never later mentioned that meeting.

Though the scholars never find out about that meeting, it is very important—and renders their well-researched conclusions inaccurate.

Things happen all the time, even important things, that leave no “discernible trace”—at least not discernable in ways we realize. Counter to Gibson’s implication, there is no duty to leave one's secrets to history. They will not contribute to some ultimate “sum total” truth. In fact, taken out of context, missing other things "not spoken or written of," they might turn (as the Victorian wife points out) into misinformation and lies.

And if the argument is that we should then collect all information, so we would have a perfect, full contextual record of everything, including, say, video and audio of all thing that happen everywhere, then that is to hope for a world-wide Panopticon. Such an argument would ignore, for the sake of history and future generations, the needs—and rights—of the living.

At the conclusion of his piece in The New York Times, Gibson concedes, “And yet I would prefer to keep certain secrets of my own, as I assume most of us would. So perhaps that desire is as much a part of us, as a species, as our need to build these memory palaces." I think that concession doesn’t go far enough. I think he is wrong when he writes that “our species is the poorer for every secret faithfully kept.” As Julie Cohen argues in her comprehensive essay titled “What Privacy Is For,” a world without privacy would deprive us of intimacy and render all of us more predictable, less able to be playful or creative, more constrained than any other generations in human history. (We think of Victorians as terribly restricted by conventions; a world without privacy would make Victorian times—as far as we can know them—seem downright wild and free.) Our species would be stunted, not richer, without privacy. And even in a time of seemingly perfect transparency, there would still be gaps, and coded communications that could not be decrypted, and the truth would still be greater than what could be recorded and replayed.


Irina Raicu is the director of the Internet Ethics program at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University.  Views are her own.

Photo K G Tuckton, used without modification under a Creative Commons license.

Jan 17, 2017

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